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Li Keqiang died of a heart attack on October 27th aged 68. He served as the 7th premier of the People's Republic of China from 2013 to 2023, thus holding the second most powerful position in the Chinese hierarchy. Li's passing is a significant moment in defining China's economic and geopolitical direction.

Li was once tipped to be the country's future paramount leader. However, Xi Jinping won that position. The two men are very different. China's political leaders over the last few decades can be measured on two scales. The first is how hardline communist they are in terms of Marxist theory being more important than economic progress and, therefore, the well-being of the people. The other school is seen as reformist. The most famous analysis puts it this way. The first school of Marxist leaders is concerned that the cat be a totally pure colour of red, with its ability to catch mice being less important. The second school is concerned that the cat catches mice and plenty of them, only asking that it be some shade of red. Xi Jinping belongs to the former school; Li Keqiang belonged to the latter. In economic terms, he was seen as advocating reform and liberalisation, representing the more pragmatic and technocratic side of China's leadership.

The importance of Li’s passing is that he was the only incumbent top official who didn't belong to Mr Xi's loyalists group. Li stepped down from the Politburo Standing Committee in October 2022 and was succeeded in March 2023 as premier by Li Qiang (a similar name, but a very dissimilar man). Li Qiang is a Xi Jinping loyalist who will follow the policies of his leader, unlike Li Keqiang. "Li's death means the loss of a prominent moderating voice within the senior levels of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with no one apparently being able to take over the mantle" (Ian Chong, non-resident scholar at the Carnegie China think tank). "This probably means even less restraint on Mr Xi's exercise of power and authority.”

The Guardian newspaper commented that “when Li became premier in 2013, he was seen as someone who would embrace private enterprise and allow the free market to flourish. But he was gradually sidelined by Xi Jinping, China’s leader, who has reasserted the CCP’s grip on all parts of the economy. To many, Li now represents the path not taken by China’s increasingly authoritarian government.” "He was a very enthusiastic open man who really strove to get China ahead and facilitated open dialogue with people from all walks of life" (Bert Hofman). Li pushed for policies to encourage entrepreneurship and technology innovation, especially amongst young people. He was known for "telling it like it is" - publicly acknowledging China's economic problems as a means of finding solutions.

The Chinese Communist Party is always particularly fearful of reactions amongst the Chinese public to the deaths of senior officials or public figures. Professor Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute, said that “remembering Li fondly is a veiled articulation of unhappiness about Xi”. The deaths of former premier Zhou Enlai in 1976 and Hu Yaobang, a former CCP general secretary, in 1989, prompted widespread outpourings of grief that morphed into protests. A similar outpouring of mourning during Jiang Zemin's death last year was seen as a subtle criticism of President Xi. Discussion online has been strictly censored within China to ensure that Li’s legacy adheres to the official narrative and does not mention talking points about political or economic reform. A leaked memo, published by China Digital Times, shows that media outlets have been instructed to “pay particular attention to overly effusive comments regarding Li’s death.” “There is definitely a lot of discontent in some quarters about Xi Jinping and little room to express it without taking a big risk … Expressing regret for Li’s death provides an opportunity for doing this in at least a veiled way.”

A video clip posted a year or two ago showed a gathering of senior Chinese political leaders. President Xi Jinping was first introduced, and then he stood up to loud applause. Li Keqiang was then introduced as the second-in-charge, but even as he began to stand, the speaker moved instantly on to the next Chinese leader in the political hierarchy, leaving Li to sit down quickly in an embarrassed way - there was no applause for him. The message was clear. China is led by Xi, not Li. In life and in death, Li should stay seated.


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Published on November 3, 2023
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